Monday, November 30, 2009



In the new podcast episode, a confab with Cathy Trost, the exhibit development director of Newseum, the museum of the news, and which is touted as "Washington DC's most interactive museum." (The above photo of the Newseum exterior is by James P. Blair.) Sure enough, you can't swing a dead cat (or, say, some more journalistic object) in this place without hitting a touch-screen game that allows kids to ask questions and report on a story, or a small TV studio where visitors can play at being a news anchor. I think the real test of a museum is not how many gadgets it has, but how well it fires the imagination of its visitors. If interactive exhibits achieve that, then so be it. 

Another thing that the aforementioned dead cat will hit is a (usually unobtrusive) sign or plaque naming one or another of the museum's corporate underwriters. I guess the Newseum has got to survive somehow, but I can't help but wonder how sponsorships affect what the exhibits say, or moreover, what exhibits they can get sponsorships for in the first place. Shows about G-men or the hunt for Lincoln's killer are always popular, and perfectly enjoyable and educational. In places, the main exhibits did address biases in journalists and journalism. But when are we likely to see an exhibit on, say, the mainstream media's unchallenging coverage of the Iraq War? And what corporate giant is going to sponsor that? Those are questions I should have asked Cathy, but didn't. So maybe the experience of talking with her, and then thinking about it later has made me into a bit of a better reporter! And if the Newseum inspires some visitors to go into journalism or ask tougher questions themselves, well, that's an important function. Cathy was a reporter for decades, and brings a genuine spirit of journalistic inquiry to her work with Newseum. Hope you enjoy the episode.

Friday, November 20, 2009


Photograph by Michael Premo (c) 2009


Michael Premo and Rachel Falcone chat with me about "Housing is a Human Right," a multimedia documentary project of the struggle for Home in New York City. The project collects and shares first person stories of Home, community and ongoing efforts to maintain or obtain housing, celebrating our desire for a place to call Home. 

I spoke with the duo at a laundromat in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, where they had mounted an installation of photographs and an audio presentation of stories of people, many of whom had been forced out of their homes. That particular exhibition of stories was supported by Michael's residency with The Laundromat Project, which supports public art projects by artists of color in their neighborhoods. (Michael himself was recently priced out of Fort Greene!) 

Fort Greene is an apt place for this project. It's a largely African American neighborhood that has been gentrified mightily in the last several years (including by me, though I just moved out myself). The stories were at once a bracing reminder of the sometimes brutal unfairness in housing trends (someone who loses housing after getting cancer), the mixed feelings some longtime residents have about gentrification (better services, loss of old neighbors), the complicated mix of actors (not just old and new residents, but the people who make housing policies that affect all of them), and a poignant elegy to people who've lost everything they had (an elderly couple who get forced out of their apartment). Whether it's old residents or new listening to the stories, I can't help but think that we all have to place ourselves in the interplay of neighborhood life. Whom did I replace, and what if any is my responsibility to them? 

Two of the many cool things about Housing is a Human Right -- they "remix" oral history, and they put stories in unusual public places. (The sound montages or "story-scapes" were mixed by Oja Vincent.) To learn more about these and other bits of goodness, listen to the podcast, and visit the project's site. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


First off, can I just tell you how totally under-dressed I felt last night at "The Moth Ball," the big black-and-white formal benefit for the "The Moth"?  Let's just say, very. The recommended attire was, of course, black and/or white, and a mask if you could manage it. I'm not a real clothes horse to begin with, and on top of that, a bunch of my clothing is in a box right now, since I just moved into a new apartment. So I wore gray cords, which I figured was the most suitable pair of pants I had readily available. I also had a pair of white painters pants, but those make me look like a Moonie or, well, a painter. And I was going to wear a white shirt and cool vintage black jacket with those pants, but then at the last minute figured I'd distinguish myself by wearing my fancy embroidered party shirt, it's a Western shirt with shiny multicolored threads in a flower pattern that I got in a used clothing store several years ago, after my friend George helpfully informed me that what I considered my "party shirt" was actually just a drab old rag. Problem is, the shirt is blue, and it doesn't really go with the grey cords, and to make matters worse, I was wearing brown shoes that I'd thrown on because my one pair of black shoes catch me in the heel and are kind of uncomfortable. What can I say, I got them at PayLess. So when I got to "Capitale," the very fancy venue for the ball, and saw pretty much everyone dressed to the nines in black and/or white -- and creatively done, too, especially a lot of the women -- well, suffice it to say I felt like I might as well have just been in my underpants. Come to think of it, that might have been better, because at least my undies were white. 

Radio personality Garrison Keillor started off the evening's show by noting that the Moth was started by people "not from here." (I'd just learned from a Danish guy with a prop theatre hat that several of the staff members of the Moth are from Denmark.) Anyway, Garrison's point (we're totally on a first-name basis) was that New Yorkers will interrupt you every 15-20 seconds "to test your commitment," and if you were brought up in a place where the tendency is to yield to others in conversation, then any story you try to tell will be a series of opening lines. (Big laugh line, that.) And so, for people telling stories at The Moth, having five minutes of uninterrupted time is like having a handicap parking permit. "That is why The Moth started," he said, "to give people a fighting chance." 

Garrison then presented the 2009 Moth Award to playwright/actress Anna Deavere Smith. Anna (we actually are on a first-name basis, as I used to work for her) interviews people about a given event or theme, and re-enacts portions of those interviews on stage in one-woman shows. Her new show, "Let Me Down Easy," at Second Stage Theatre through December 6, is about health and the human body. Check it out, or if you're not going to be in NYC, the theatre's website  has video of Anna's recent appearance on Bill Moyers, in which she discusses the play. Anyway, Anna says that hers are "hand-me-down stories," and told one that was related to her by oral historian Studs Terkel, who in turn got it from Mark Twain (in books, that is, since Studs Terkel was not THAT old). Anna then launched into what I thought was a pretty great Studs Terkel voice,  repeating verbatim what he'd told her about how important it is to question "the official truth," and using Huck Finn as an example. Anna added that Bill Moyers had asked her if acting was lying, and she said no, that instead it was about getting at other truths. That's what storytellers at The Moth do.

"Everyone has a story" is the simple, compelling message of The Moth -- and part of the "brand" campaign developed for the organization by the ad firm of Ogilvy. The new tag line for the organization (or at least its "story slams") is "You, a microphone and a story." Aside from the "story slams" and other performances, The Moth sponsors storytelling workshops for students and marginalized adults living in New York City. One of those students was Terrence Buckner (pictured above), who last night was awarded The Moth's $5,000 college scholarship. I had heard Terrence's story "Last Laugh" on The Moth podcast a few months ago. Terrence has got a lovely, sing-song teenagery voice (he was 15 at the time of the telling) and an adorable laugh, and told a story about coming out of the closet, and getting beat up, and pressing onward. Terrence is totally the gayest thing, and in case it's not clear I say that in respect and admiration. So, Terrence is challenging the official truth by telling his story, and also looked pretty sharp while doing it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Tonight I'm going to "The Moth Ball" in New York City, it's the annual benefit for "The Moth." For the uninitiated, "The Moth" is a regular series of performances where people tell true stories live on stage without notes. "The Moth" started in New York City, and has since spread to Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and other cities. They have a free weekly podcast of stories recorded at their live events, and are now piloting a new hour-long radio show.  

The benefit tonight features radio king Garrison Keillor, writer Jonathan Ames, and it honors playwright/actress Anna Deavere Smith (who I used to work for, incidentally). The recommended attire is described this way: "Raven black or powder white, Don yourself for a festive night. Add a mask so we will wonder, What persona lies there under?" I am so lame, I have nothing to wear. Is it gauche to mix brown shoes with a black jacket? Probably so, and at the very least it's not in keeping with the dress code. As for a mask, well, about the only thing I have is a thick black pair of novelty glasses (with no lenses) that might make me look a little like Ira Glass. Well, if Clark Kent can disguise his identity as Superman just by donning a pair of specs, then maybe it'll work for me.

I'll let you know how it goes, when I blog about the event tomorrow.  

Tuesday, November 10, 2009



Happy Tuesday to y'all. This time on the podcast, I chat with Dr. Rita Charon, founder and director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. Rita is a double doctor! An M.D., as well as a Ph.D. in English -- her dissertation was on Henry James. "Narrative Medicine" sounds like it might refer to medical treatments for people who just can't tell a story to save their lives. But -- and isn't this a handy reversal! -- as it turns out, telling stories might just save lives. Rita talks about how "narrative competence" can help improve doctor-patient relations, the quality of service, and the effectiveness of medical teams. I think you'll agree she's really pretty cool.  I think this photo of her captures her lively spirit. (I grabbed the photo from this website, and it's (c) 2003 by V. Hevern.) We spoke over tea at her writing studio, which has a lovely view of the Empire State Building -- it was lit up in red, white and blue that evening for the election.

The Program in Narrative Medicine has classes for med students, but they also have a series of monthly public talks called "Narrative Medicine Rounds" -- a fantastic lineup of authors, artists, activists and others. They just had Harlen Coben speak last week, and coming up in the next couple months are Virgil Wong and Sharon Olds. All those talks are open to the public. The schedule, and links to audio recordings of the talks, are available here

Thanks for listening!

Monday, November 2, 2009


From the September/October issues of the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), a piece by Brent Cunningham called "Take a Stand" on how the press can regain its relevance. Cunningham notes that CNN/U.S. president Jonathan Klein defended his network's coverage of Hurricane Katrina by saying, "We go in looking for stories, not issues which need to be raised." That, for Cunningham, is at the crux of the issue: too often the press just conveys stories and perspectives given to them by powerful interests -- an important function, to let the public know what's going on. But so long as the "fourth estate" of the press forgoes its other vital roles as "investigator, explainer, and, I would add, arbiter of our national conversation," it then "mostly amplifies the agendas of others--the prominent and the powerful." 

Most recently, the press did a lot of hand-wringing the Bush Administration's prosecution of the Iraq War, over its own failure to separate truth from lies. (Frank Rich's book "The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina" has a superb chapter on the failures of the press. Here's the New York Times review of the book, which further examines this issue.) Which is to say, the issues in Cunningham's piece are by no means new. But "Take a Stand" is a sharp piece, and an indicator of the ongoing and wrenching conversation in the press as to when and how to hold power to account, and just what that means. Some provocative comments were posted in response.